It should have been a happy summer for Michael Clauer. The Texas Army National Guard captain was winding down his time in Iraq, preparing for a new unit to arrive and replace him and the 130 service members under his command.
But a phone call in June 2009 left him so shaken that a colleague suggested he seek psychiatric help: his wife, her voice choked with tears, told him that their homeowners association had foreclosed on and sold their Frisco, Texas house -- which the Clauers say is valued at more than $300,000 -- for $3,200, according to county land records.
"I couldn't believe it," Clauer, 37, said. "I didn't understand how anybody could do that."
The Heritage Lake Homeowners Association, as Clauer would come to learn, had exercised its rights under Texas law to sell the home after the Clauers fell behind on their association dues by about $800. Now, Clauer and his wife May are suing the homeowners association, the investors who bought the home at foreclosure and sold it, and the home's current owner.
The Clauers, who reached an agreement with the current owner to continue to live in the home with their two young daughters until their lawsuit is resolved, either want to get their house back or be paid damages by the people they're suing. They'd prefer, of course, the former.
"We want it back the way it was," Clauer said.
The case, which was first reported by ABC affiliate WFAA and has gotten increasing attention in recent weeks, has made the Heritage Lake Homeowners Association an object of public scorn, with some association employees and board members receiving threatening phone calls and e-mails, an association spokesman said.
The spokesman, who asked not to be identified for fear of also becoming a target of threats, told ABCNews.com that the association hopes the Clauers succeed in getting their house back. But it's not up to them to return ownership of the home to the Clauers, he said, because they don't own it.
At the time of the foreclosure, he said, the association hadn't been informed that Clauer was serving with the military.
"We would be thrilled if he got his house back," he said, but, "at this point, it's going to take the courts to do that."
The Clauers might not have any hope of getting their home back at all if not for the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), a federal law that prohibits foreclosure on a military service member unless the foreclosure is ordered by a court.
The law dates back to World War I and is designed to "provide protections for service members against certain civil obligations" while they're on active duty, said John Odom, a retired U.S. Air Force judge advocate general and an expert on the SCRA.
But the homeowners' association spokesman said that, at the time of the foreclosure in May, 2008, the association didn't know that Clauer was serving with the military.
"They're not mind readers and the fact of the matter is nobody told them," he said.
In their lawsuit, the Clauers conceded that the homeowners association sent them four letters between October 2007 and April 2008 notifying them of their delinquent dues. But May Clauer was suffering such "severe depression and anxiety" over her husband's deployment that she didn't read the letters, according to the Clauers' complaint.